Friday 24 June 2011

Winds of change in Carmarthenshire

Plaid Cymru took another seat from the "Independents" in Llanegwad last night, and Mansel Charles has been returned as the new member in a ward which has a tradition of returning "Independent" candidates. This reinforces Plaid's position as largest group on the council, but it is still just a little short of holding half the seats.

The voting was:

Mansel Charles (Plaid Cymru) 494
Clive Pugh (Independent) 453

This is a very good result for local democracy because it shows that issues matter to voters. Mansel Charles stood on a platform of opposing the closure of yet more village schools and other issues of real concern to people locally, whereas the "Independent" appeared unable or unwilling to say where he stood on anything, apart from wanting to join the ruling Independent/Labour group in Carmarthen.

The "Independents" set out their stall earlier in the week in a letter from Cllr Stephen James to the Carmarthen Journal. And a pretty threadbare and disingenuous stall it is.

Mr James, who is reckoned to be one of the favourites to take over from Meryl Gravell when she steps down as leader, claimed that the "Independents" were just a group of like-minded individuals, not a party at all. They just happen to agree on everything.

As an example of just how independent the "Independents" are, he cited a debate on the closure of a care home in Llanelli back in February this year, without going in to detail, of course.

Here is the detail. The motion to close the home was defeated by 38 votes to 28, with just 5 "Independents" voting with the opposition. All 28 votes in favour were cast by "Independent" or Labour members, including of course, Cllr James himself.

This was the only time in recent years where there has been any kind of rebellion by "Independent" councillors, and a pretty small rebellion at that.

More recently we have seen strong protests by local people against the closure of schools, day clubs for elderly people and other controversial council policies. On each occasion, "Independent" councillors elected to represent their communities have sided with the council and backed the official line.

Independent councillors who step out of line face the wrath of Meryl Gravell ("absolutely bonkers" and "extreme weakness" are two phrases which spring to mind), while councillors who loyally do as they are told are rewarded with plum new jobs as chairmen of committees, sinecures which bring an additional £11,000 in allowances to the lucky winners highly experienced and deserving appointees.

Cllr James trots out another favourite line in his letter, namely that Carmarthenshire is one of the best run councils in Wales. They have also previously claimed that we have the best chief executive in Wales.

Well, in the last two weeks they have been attacked by both the left-leaning New Statesman and the rather less radical Horse and Hound; they have been reported with approval by the Chinese state controlled press for they way they deal with pro-democracy activists; and they have made it into the rogues gallery of Private Eye's "Rotten Boroughs". Quite an achievement, and I suspect that other Welsh councils will be having a quiet chuckle.

And now the electors have spoken.

Mrs Gravell will no doubt now be giving more thought to life post-retirement, while Mark James is probably checking the golden parachute clauses in his contract of employment.

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